Thursday, April 11, 2013

Missouri's Larry Phillips nominated for 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame

When you think of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, names like Petty, Earnhardt, and Pearson come to mind. Well, there is one driver who competed locally that regularly makes the list for people in-the-know, and you may have never even heard his name.

Larry Phillips from Springfield, Mo., is one of the greatest stock car drivers who ever lived, and he had much of his success here in the Kansas City area.  But his anonymity is about to change.  Phillips was just added to the list of 25 nominees for possible induction to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014.  This is exciting news for stock car fans who watched Phillips obliterate the competition on tracks throughout the Midwest.

So why haven’t you heard of him before now? Well, he only raced one event in what is now called the Sprint Cup series, that in 1976. He was not a media mogul, an attention hound, or a socialite. He was kind of a crabby loner. But his accomplishments on the short tracks of the Midwest are nothing short of legendary.

I started watching Phillips when he came back to race at I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo., and Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., in the early ‘90s. Now, I was a Nebraska kid, and never really knew how dominant and unbeatable he had been in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He just showed up one night with a beat-up Lumina late model, and while everyone else was scrambling to do last-minute work on their cars before the races, Phillips sort of stood there next to his car and smoked a cigarette.

He then proceeded to kick everyone’s ass. And he kept kicking. And kicking. Year after year, Phillips drug his beat-up looking Luminas to the track, and won virtually everything. If a new hot shoe came to town, Phillips stomped him. When the big shot professional touring series boys pulled into town, Phillips could handle them too.

There is a national points system that pits all the premiere class drivers against the drivers at every other NASCAR-sanctioned track across the country. They use a formula that calculates number of drivers, number of events, and number of wins, to determine a champion. There were about 100 tracks in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series back then. So let’s just say that there was an average of 20 drivers in the premiere class at every one of those tracks (that is a VERY conservative number). So to win the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series championship, a driver would not only be the best driver at his track, but also beat out about 2,000 other drivers around the country.

I only bring this up, because Larry Phillips won this championship. Five times. By far more than any other driver. I went to the races pretty much every week back then, and basically watched him do it.

And it was amazing. The way he drove was incredible. It didn’t matter where he started a race, he was usually the leader by the time the field came around for the first lap. If a guy held him up, he’d give him a little quarter panel slide-job when he overtook him in the turns. You weren’t supposed to be able to see it, but it was there if you paid attention.

Phillips was a chain-smoker. He went as far as to have a cigarette lighter in his race car so he could light-up during the race. It might not have been healthy, but it was intimidating. This just wasn’t a guy you messed with.

Phillips reportedly won thousands of races, although an actual count has never been established. One of his strongest years was 1991 when he won 38 out of 40 features at multiple tracks en-route to his second weekly racing series championship. He won the ’95 championship over now Sprint Cup star Greg Biffle in a tie breaker. And he won his final championship in 1996 winning 14 of 20 features.

Phillips beat and inspired many of the best drivers throughout his career. Among those who still sing his praises are Mark Martin (who competed in several ASA races against Phillips), Rusty Wallace, Ken Schrader, and Jamie McMurray. Although Phillips was never a warm, fuzzy kind of guy, no one who competed against him could ever deny the talent and relentless drive he brought to the track.

When I was a NASCAR member about ten years ago, NASCAR sent out a nice book that profiled the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR history. And sure enough, right there among Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Dale Earnhardt was Larry Phillips. In 2006, NASCAR chronicled their 25 greatest drivers as part of the 25th anniversary of the Weekly Racing Series, and of course, Phillips was at the top of the list. Phillips is in several regional and national racing halls of fame.

Larry Phillips was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000, and ran his last race in 2001. He died in September of 2004. His winning legacy still lives on with his son Terry Phillips, who is an accomplished dirt late model racer.

Phillips joined Dale Jarrett, track owner Bruton Smith, engine builder Maurice Petty, and 1960 NASCAR champion Rex White for the final five nominations into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  I would love to see him make it, because as someone who watched him race many times, I can tell you that he deserves it.

Of course, I always like to include a slideshow with these stories, but I just don’t have 500 pictures of Larry Phillips in action.  In fact, the only picture I ever actually took myself is this Polaroid, which I had him sign on the roof of that wild Camaro Late Model there.  So instead, I’m including some contemporary scans from programs and racing trade papers.  I knew I saved all this stuff for something, and here it is.  You can check it all out in the slideshow below, or click this link for a nicer version.

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